I recently moved into local government after eight years in the housing association sector.
In my first week I was asked to write a paper for cabinet (executive councillors) and so I was thrown in the deep end of learning the decision making structure of local authorities.
First on the list was knowing how to format the paper, I’ve written board papers before so was expecting cabinet papers to be very similar. In fact, the process is quite different,
I was given access to the Modern.Gov system and told once I had drafted my paper it should be circulated to departments such as finance, legal, HR, my director and the CEO for comment.
I was also invited to attend a meeting with others preparing cabinet papers that month to hear any feedback from those departments directly. The comms team also attended to identify any PR opportunities or issues.
Before drafting my own cabinet paper, I was able to look at papers from previous meetings, as most are available in full to staff.
After working in housing associations where access to board papers was extremely restricted, I found it really refreshing to have full access to what is being discussed and decided.
And it’s not just staff that have access, members of the public can access a significant amount of the papers and minutes on the council’s website. Of course, some matters are exempt from publication.
I’m not sure many people in the housing sector look towards local government for examples of innovation and good practice, but I think this is certainly an area that others can learn from, and I’m sure there are many more too.
Issues of transparency and accountability are high on the agenda at the moment and being as open as possible in your decision making should be a big part of this.
Of course I understand that this transparency in local government is for democratic purposes and that housing associations are private businesses so some might not consider it appropriate to publish board papers and minutes.
However, as providers of public services that don’t operate in entirely competitive or commercial environments, I think it’s important that they are held to account by their stakeholders.
The Local Government Research Unit at De Montfort University recently published a paper on this very topic.
In fact, some have already adopted this approach, such as Halton Housing Trust, and I challenge everyone to think about how they can be more transparent and accountable to their stakeholders by not only publishing board papers, but also performance information, expenditure over £500, salaries, declarations of interest, risk appetite, compliance information, regulatory breaches etc.
What have you got to lose… or hide?